This piece first appeared on The Ransom Note
In 1980 Alvin Toffler wrote ‘The Third Wave’, the second of his seminal works of futurology. The book analysed how societies change and develop, positing that there are three waves of social evolution; a first wave of agricultural existence, an industrial age, and finally the age we find ourselves entering, The Third Wave; the age of technology.
Toffler theorised that great conflict is inevitable as one age cedes to the next. The elite of The First Wave, he argued, fought and resisted the spread of industrialisation, just as the elite of The Second Wave are threatened by the sweeping changes technology introduces to our lives. I’d often thought that Toffler missed his mark, and that in reality, the elite of the industrial age were doing a pretty good job of bending the techno-sphere (his catch all term for technological developments) to their own nefarious purposes.
Now though, I’m not so sure.
Above shared resources and common land mass, nations are held together by stories. I think Alan Moore has a particularly elegant summery of the potency that stories hold for our constructions of identity – here are a couple of panels from the end of ‘The League of Gentleman: The Black Dossier’ spoken by Moore’s version of Prospero:
In Moore’s telling, it is the fantastical characters of imagination that shape us – “the fantasies thou’ve fashioned fashion thee.” I would argue that the fantasy England's past has been reduced to has had just as much effect. The concept of a nation is a feat of imagination (the words even share a root), and politicians love to maintain this concept by alluding to shared hopes and dreams. Well-polished national myths are trotted out time and again, tales that are used to shape our notion of self, that give us the clothes we dress the ‘Englishman’ in, and that make us efficient citizen/consumers; easy to sell to, and easy to yoke. You know the stories –Tommys in the trenchs, writing poems and unutterably brave; music hall chappies and blitz spirit sing songs and William Wilburforce, great friend to the slaves.
And the most convenient way – possibly the only way- to make sure an industrialised population has thoroughly internalised these heart-warming tales, has always been through the incredible power of the mass media – as Toffler notes:
“In the mass media, from newspapers and radio to cinema and television, we find once again the basic principle of the factory. All of them stamp identical messages into millions of brains, just as the factory stamps out identical products for use in millions of homes. Standardised, mass-manufactured ‘facts’, counterparts of standardised, mass-manufactured products, flow from a few concentrated image factories out to millions of consumers…. This centrally produced imagery, injected into the ‘mass mind’ by the mass media, helped produce the standardised behaviour required by the industrial production system. ”
Now however, as Toffler predicted, a fissure has opened. He termed this fissure ‘the de-massified media’, the process whereby the means to tell the story of our existence, to control the meaning of our shared history, slips from the grasp of an industrial elite into the hands of the tech savvy many.
“As the Third Wave thunders in,” he writes, “the mass media, far from expanding their influence, are being forced to share it.”
This probably wouldn’t be much of a problem in a country where the mainstream narrative was broadly in keeping with the lived experiences of much of the population (if such a country exists in the industrialised world). England isn’t that country. As reports of horrific, institutionalised abuse by the highest levels of government snowball, you can watch the crack between the official narrative of our lives, and the new narrative being told a thousand times online widen. The long maintained golden neverwhere of fair play and crumpets- the England of imagination- is being torn apart.
I’m not sure that we live in a society that can handle multiple, conflicting versions of the same story – I’m not sure that any nation can. We’ve been too thoroughly trained in believing reality is a rigid thing. So now we have a situation where the vast swathe of the country has a complete lack of faith in the traditional story tellers. Journalists and editors have been banged up as liars. Politicians are at best incompetent, at worst abusers of the most horrific sort. Our children are entertained by predators and our money is held by thieves. Outside of the establishment, documentary makers such as Bill Malony are producing films made compelling by a shock-factor retelling of our recent past. Malony makes claims that the mainstream would never, and could never make. He’s a canny operator, driven by righteous anger but aware of the power of drama in telling ‘the story’ – his film detailing the abuse in the notorious Elm Guest House was titled Nightmares at Elm Guest House, evoking one of Hollywood’s most notorious bogey men. It’s been watched 10,000 times a month since it was first uploaded. His examination of the horrors perpetrated in the Jersey care system has been watcehd over 200,000 times. This isn’t the alternative media: this is fast becoming the media. Whatever the truth of the matter, there is a huge unsatisfied craving in the populance for new storytellers to appear, people who can make sense of a country that has lied to itself so successfully for so long.
What does all this mean? Well, no one seems to have picked up on the very real possibility that this split between traditional narrative and this darker, nihilistic retelling of our past could soon inspire a literal cleavage. The vote on Scottish Independence draws closer, and it seems unlikely that voters in the North won’t be swayed by events in Westminster. No doubt any inquiry the government put together into the scandals threatening to engulf parliament will have one aim at its heart – the same aim Norman Tebbit claimed drove cover ups in the 80s- to “protect the system”, to protect the story we’ve had for years. But times have changed, and the system was best protected by the belief people shared in it. That belief is losing ground by the day, outdated by sensational horror narratives, virals that spread the web with the new narrative: England is a land of monsters.
There’s an old wives tale that you should never wake a sleepwalker. The shock might kill them. So what happens if a nation has been sleepwalking, only to find itself rudely jolted awake? Does it die? Are we about to find out?
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